Category Voices
Author By Rachel E. Durham, PhD

The Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS) has faculty working in programs focused on school improvement at all stages of the educational trajectory, from early childhood to young adulthood. Perhaps not coincidentally, the structure of many CSOS projects mirrors federal and state accountability expectations—e.g., all four-year olds should be enrolled in quality pre-K programs; all kindergarteners should arrive ready to learn; there should be quality teachers in all 1st through 12th grade classrooms, and so on.

However, a relative newcomer to the accountability horizon is a focus on college readiness and access to higher education. In the CSOS at 50 Blog in May, my colleague Faith Connolly shared information on many projects BERC has underway in our research-practice partnership with the Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools). My appointment at CSOS is with BERC and a large part of my research focuses on ways to improve college access among City Schools graduates.

When our first data-sharing agreement with City Schools was approved in 2007, BERC wasn’t yet aware of the vast data on college outcomes that City Schools already held. That fall, the district’s Chief of Accountability asked BERC if we would look over Baltimore’s data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC). Of course, we jumped at the opportunity. For years, only anecdotal accounts circulated about high school graduates’ success in being accepted to elite colleges – Harvard, Yale, MIT – yet, with the exception of a few intrepid high school leaders, virtually no one was following up with these students to ascertain whether they enrolled, whether they persisted, and whether they completed a degree from any college.

Thus, after my first examination of the NSC data, I found that just under 50 percent of City Schools graduates were enrolling in any college the next fall, District leaders were surprised, as enrollment had always been assumed to be much higher, just based on students’ stated intentions for the year immediately after graduation from high school.

The initial NSC results were met with questions: “What exactly is this NSC data source, and should we believe it?” “What did BERC do to the data, and should we trust you?” These are fair questions, so the next step for BERC and the district was to sit down together and try to develop greater clarity about where the data came from, how they were recorded and analyzed by the NSC and myself, and what a reasonable expectation for college enrollment should even be. After a few more analyses with the following year’s data, as well as the next year and the next, greater trust was achieved.

Finally in 2011, BERC published its first public report on City Schools’ graduates’ college enrollment and degree completion. BERC published another report in 2013, another in 2015, and a fourth report last year. With each new report, BERC researchers are better able to prepare findings in ways that identify leverage points that district leaders, counselors, and teachers can use to improve their students’ success the next year.

For example, in BERC’s latest report in 2016, we explored another new data source, which includes students’ reports about applications to colleges, their acceptances, and their financial aid awards. This meant that we could help high schools target activities where they were most needed, e.g., how many students apply to more than one college? Do students who were accepted actually enroll? Who does not, and if not, how can high schools follow up to remove the barriers that prevented students from showing up on campus the next fall? How can high school staff take proactive steps to help the next group of graduates to follow through on plans to attend college? We’ve come a long way from simply reporting how many students enrolled in college. Now, we can help district leaders and others better understand the relationship between graduates’ aspirations and their outcomes.

Just like Talent Development’s efforts to improve graduation rates by identifying ninth grade on-track indicators, BERC hopes to identify on-track indicators of college success. In 2014, for example, BERC published a report detailing the alignment (or lack of alignment) between high schools’ definitions of “college-ready” and colleges’ definitions. We found that among our Baltimore graduates who do enroll in college, many arrive only to face additional hurdles. Without a high enough SAT score, students must sit for placement tests that determine whether they qualify to take courses that earn college credit. If they do not qualify, they must first take and pass a number of developmental (remedial) courses. Critically, we also found that the SAT score cut-offs and placement test qualifying scores differ from one Maryland college to the next, which makes the enrollment process potentially confusing and discouraging. And, while developmental courses are costly, they do not earn students credits towards a degree. Future BERC work is now being planned to share data across City Schools and several popular colleges so that we can help the district understand how to better ensure students can easily overcome such barriers and arrive at college fully prepared to succeed.

Such is the beauty of research-practice partnership work. Doing research is great fun by itself, but conducting research for the benefit of my city and the local community is particularly rewarding and part of what makes CSOS special.

Keep up with our latest news.